It is an overcast sky in the middle of September as the leaves break away from the trees, signaling the changing of seasons. It has been drizzling all morning at Peaks View Park in Lynchburg, Virginia and the in-field dirt has changed into a wet clay-like texture. The Special Olympics Oklahoma Fighting Peacocks and the Special Olympics Maryland Fredrick County Heat will battle for the gold medal in the Unified division of the 2023 Special Olympics North America Softball Championship. That is if the rain holds off just a little longer.
It is the final game of the weekend and all who had been watching started to gather behind home plate. Eric Jackson stands on the mound to get things started. Three batters up, three batters down. It was a dream start for the Oklahoma team that had not lost in an estimated seventy-five games. But within the next inning Maryland took a shocking 4-0 lead. Maryland was fresh off a spectacular win against the Special Olympics Georgia Big Dogs, riding the high of victory in a must-win game if they wanted to face the Fighting Peacocks for gold.
A few batters later, Oklahoma finally brings a run in. However, it was an unfamiliar feeling for the Fighting Peacocks. They were playing from behind and in a close game for the first time since 2019. There was a jittery feeling in the air.
First base coach Michael Wolfe echoes the words “line drive, base hit, let’s go,” throughout the game. Weather conditions were not ideal, and it may have contributed to the Fighting Peacocks’ sloppy start. But, by the fifth inning, Oklahoma had found their mojo and hit a triple play. “It was stressful but then relieved after getting our bats going and our defense going,” Wolfe says.
The Fighting Peacocks then hit a two-run home run, followed by a four-base award. Better known as a home run—a four-base award— is when a fly ball leaves the field of play in fair territory. In this case, the fielder deflected the ball over the fence. Because the tournament had a two-home run limit, a four-base award does not punish the team at bat.
At the start of the open inning—an inning that is played following the allotted 60 minutes for which no time limit is set—the Fighting Peacocks bring in their closer. Joey Ross gets the outs, and the mission is complete. Adding it to the extensive list of accolades having won the gold medal at the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games in Seattle and the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games in Orlando, this one meant more.
“It was awesome,” second baseman Dillon Pruitt says following the game. “We are just a brotherhood; this is my 12th year doing this and it has been an absolute blessing. It just means a lot, this is what Special Olympics is all about, its competitiveness.”
Jerimey Jackson was one of the most athletically gifted human beings Tyler Jackson had the honor of knowing. Gushing with pride talking about the list of Division I scholarships Jerimey received, Tyler and his teammates spoke highly of Jerimey’s character and how much of a jokester he was. “It doesn’t matter how bad the day was or if it was completely unnecessary, he’d hurt himself to make sure people laughed, he was just a mood changer,” Tyler says with a spark in his voice about his uncle.
Some years ago, during Thanksgiving break and nearing the playoffs for football in Oklahoma, Jerimey got pneumonia. Then, he got a staph infection, but had surgery to remove the infection that overtook 98 percent of his lung. After five or six years of just living with it, a little over four years ago, Jerimey had a double lung transplant. “He couldn’t really do much, he could walk to the kitchen and back,” Tyler says about his uncle. Following the transplant, “He had the ability to move around and have fun with his kids,” Tyler shares. “We were out here with Special Olympics practicing and he noticed how much it was helping athletes.”
Just from watching practice, Jerimey was impacted by what he saw. “He came in head over heels,” Tyler says about him joining the team. “It was most definitely a passion that he picked up pretty quick and he loved everybody on this team.”
It did not matter what day or time it was, Jerimey always reached out to people and asked if they wanted to practice. He was one of those guys who was not really in the plan but found his way to the Fighting Peacocks and they embraced him. He quickly became the heart and soul of the Oklahoma team.
“He was always cool and fun to play with, he was a good athlete,” catcher Brad Tanner says. “I enjoyed him, I really did.”
Those times in hardship fighting the futures unknown, gave Tyler and his father Eric, Jerimey’s brother, the greatest gift of all. Time together. The three of them and the softball team who’d become like family.
Jerimey Jackson died on June 16th, 2023.
Now, the Fighting Peacocks play in his honor. No matter where they are, or what field they are on, Jerimey is with them. Throughout the weekend, players wore an arm sleeve in his memory, a No. 33 decal stuck to the back of each helmet, and they carved out “4, 33” in the dirt next to the dugout. During the second day of the tournament, Eric wore his jersey.
On the opening day of the tournament, Tyler hit two home runs and says laughing “I don’t hit home runs, yesterday I hit two,” letting everyone know his uncle was with him.
In the end, the Oklahoma Fighting Peacocks finished the tournament with an undefeated record. They accomplished everything they set out to do and honored their teammate beautifully. Like they do every game, following Oklahoma’s 12-9 victory over Maryland, both teams huddled together for a team prayer. A moment of unity after fierce competition.
And then there are the two Jacksons, teary-eyed and emotional. Father and son with the game ball in hand embracing near the pitcher’s mound. A demonstration of their love for each other and the uncle, brother and teammate who is deeply missed.